About homosexuality and Islam Mehmet doesn’t mince words. “It’s impossible, in and of itself. It’s a contradiction in terms,” says the twenty-five-year- old Turkish mobile-phone salesman from Wilmersdorf. “It’s rejected by our religion flat out. But here in Germany you are confronted with it on a daily basis. Unfortunately, you can’t sound off about it. Someone’s going to take it the wrong way, or interpret it differently. Society  as a whole has gone to the dogs. As a result of all of our so-called freedoms. And then you say, ‘but God intended to make me a woman’. No. God made you a man! Deal with it! You can’t go zick-zack. If you don’t stick to the straight path, you’ll reap retribution.” 

Such is, more or less, the standard view on homosexuality and Islam amongst most Turks in Berlin.  Even  out-and-out Turkish homosexuals see Islam and homosexuality as mutually irreconcilable.

“Like in other religions, it’s absolutely taboo,” says Cihanger, a gay artist and Oriental belly dancer from Turkey, who is active in the Kreuzberg queer scene. “I myself have nothing to do with Islam.”

And yet, in the face of unyielding views on homosexuality amongst conservative Turks, a dissident Turkish gay and lesbian scene thrives underground in Berlin, Kreuzberg – at Gayhane, a monthly Oriental club night geared at the Turkish queer scene at Kreuzberg alternative temple, SO-36.

Irrespective of sexual orientation, Gayhane is the only regular Oriental club night in Berlin. As such it attracts not only gays and lesbians but also straights:  women as well as men, who just want to get down to Oriental beats. This, despite a strict anti-hetero door policy.

Those not looking gay enough are quizzed at the door on their sexual orientation, and if you don’t fit the bill you can be turned away. Reverse discrimination? Perhaps.

“I think it’s simply stupid to say, we’re not letting heterosexual people in anymore,” says Cihangir. “One can’t do that.  It’s just as discriminating as when in a heterosexual locale they say, we’re not letting in transvestites or gays. It’s just the same.”

“I play for everyone,” says Turkish lesbian DJ Ipek. “My target group is people in general. But of course, many gays and lesbians come to my parties and many people with immigrant backgrounds, but also many curious Germans.  In Gayhane the audience is very mixed, but predominantly lesbian, gay and transgender and at the same time Turkish, Arabic, Kurdish, Balkan and Indian and lesbian and gay and people of different generations and social classes.”

Ipek has been DJ-ing  since 1994 at SO-36, putting on “Queer Orient” parties, back when ethno beats were rare on Berlin dancefloors. Gradually the word spread that Ipek did Oriental and after some women’s soli (solidarity) actions, she started to get booked for clubs in Berlin. For around twelve years now she has managed to make a living spinning records in Berlin, in Istanbul, Tel Aviv and other hip world capitals.

Berlin is a city rich in ethnic subcultures. Detractors  say “parallel societies”. This is born out musically as well. Popular arabesk and pop singers from Turkey periodically come to play in never-heard-of venues to exclusively Turkish audiences, entirely ignored by the mainstream German press.

Not only would a non-Turk feel out of place there, but Ipek herself confesses to feeling awkward in such scenes.

“I wouldn’t go to Turkish parties because it is not my taste. I don’t like the music. It’s too heterosexual.  It’s so confined.  You have to dress up.  You have to carry yourself in a certain way.  And the possibility that there is a punch-up there is higher than if you go to Gayhane.”

Gayhane – gay, as in gay, and “hane”, as in the Turkish word for “domicile” – is a place where homosexual Turks and Arabs, who might otherwise feel ill at ease among their own dominant milieus, can relax and let their hair down a bit. Ipek calls it a “return to a familiar scene” where gays, lesbians and transgenders “don’t have to suppress any part of their personality.”

Often there is a noticeable, even paradoxical discrepancy between what could be construed as the very heterosexual and perhaps sexist tone of many Turkish and Arabic songs DJ Ipek plays and the stated aims of the party. Sometimes it happens that Ipek will be criticized outright for playing music that reinforces “chauvinistic” and traditional gender roles. 

It once happened that a German woman came up to Ipek at Gayhane and asked her if she had any music from “matriarchal countries”. Asked what she meant, the woman complained that among Turks and Arabs there was so much violence against women; why play songs that tacitly supported such a culture? Ipek was quick to rejoin:

“For this person it was perfectly clear: violence against women was something that had to do with Arabic and Turkish communities with an Islamic background. But I said to her to quit coming at me with her Eurocentric way of thinking and then she flipped me off and went away.”

Despite the entrenched conservative views of many German Turks, it’s clear Ipek feels that being homosexual and Turkish can jibe.

“Some Germans think that among Turks there are no lesbians and gays. One thinks that homosexuality is something Western.  But if you go to Turkey and say that you are lesbian, people won’t say to you, ‘You are lesbian because you are German’, but rather you are lesbian because you are lesbian and maybe you are sick or maybe you are completely normal.  But here in Germany people have the idea being lesbian and Turkish is something which has to pose a problem.”

“There are all sorts of singers, like Tarkan, who are gay, though he still says he isn’t gay, ” says Cihangir (this despite the fact that the popular Turkish singer is now married with a daughter). 

“In the Orient we are not so offensive, we are not so open. Everything is veiled and behind closed doors and secret.”

Cihangir was born in the Western-leaning Turkish city of Izmir. Very early on he developed a love for music and dance, so that as a child he was asked to perform for traditional sunnet or circumcision ceremonies.

Later, Cihangir came to Berlin with his family. Growing up in the districts of Wedding and Charlottenburg, he listened to Oriental music and danced at home. 

“Dancing was something soulful for me. Like someone who would sit down and practice yoga, dancing was like that for me.  It was a lot of fun, and apparently it does have elements of yoga and chakra, too. These wave-like movements are supposed to be very spiritual.” 

Cihangir first started dancing professionally in 1996 at a Gay Orient Night in Tempelhof, which became Salon Oriental, which then became Gayhane. At Gayhane Cihangir performs mostly belly dance.

“But one doesn’t just dance with one’s belly. That would be boring. I also bring elements of flamenco, jazz, ballet, comedy. I do classical oriental, fantasy Oriental- it’s all a show. You have to entertain people. I dance fifteen minutes usually. A stripper earns three times as much and is over in five minutes. There’s nothing more boring than two hours of oriental dance. I have to vary my routine.”

About the target audience at Gayhane, Cihangir says:

“We want Kiki and Mickey. We want Shishi and Fifi. We want Husein with Ahmed. We want Mathias and Jürgen.  We want Ingrid and Hans. We want everyone. We want heterosexuals and gays.”

Asked if there is any opposition to Gayhane by the religiously minded, Cihangir says, “I don’t think they know what is going on, and if they did I’m sure they would think it was total Sodom and Gomorrah.”